There is a puritanical streak in this country's DNA that relishes punishing people for their shortcomings and failures, and sneers at reaching out a helping hand to support people who are less able and less strong...especially when that hand is funded by tax dollars. Private charity is fine; religious-based charity is fine. We can be amazingly generous there, when it's a matter of personal choice. But governmental support? That's just evil, because the money goes to people we don't get to choose. Them.
People supported public schools when there was a tracking system that separated the stronger students from the weaker ones. As long as there was a caste system within the school, we were happy to pretend that all children were created equal, and send them to the same school.
Once tracking was de-legitimized, though, and we moved to heterogeneous classes, parents started getting itchy. Combine that with racial de-segregation, and people got hives. Now the public school really was a melting pot, and children of all kinds (other than the rich kids who were already in private schools) were expected to mingle and befriend each other. So we started working against that. We fled to the suburbs, and when that didn't work well enough, we started finding ways to create magnet schools, charter schools...anything to re-track and re-homogenize.
Deep down, we don't want our schools to be indiscriminate. We want to discriminate among schools, and we want our schools to discriminate among children...as long as our kids are in the winning group, of course.
We say we want all children to succeed. We say we want all young people to have an equal shot at success, and play the game of life on a level playing field. But we don't really believe those things. We don't take actions to make those things happen. What we really want is for our children to succeed.
Perhaps I've just gotten cynical, but what follows is the world I fear we're heading towards. Maybe we're already there--I don't know.
The rich will send their children to private schools, because they will be able to afford them. At these schools, children will attain social capital and learn the skills they will need to take positions as part of the ruling class.
The middle class will send their children to the better charter schools, because they will know how to pull political strings and levers, and because they will be literate enough and mission-driven enough to research which schools are the best. At these schools, children will learn the basic skills they will need to continue their education and become successful professionals. They will then strive to send their own children to private schools.
The lower classes will send their children to crappy charter schools or traditional public schools, because that all that will be left for them. At these schools, children will learn how to sit still, obey orders, and fulfill tasks with minimum skills proficiency. These children will then go out to make French fries for the rest of us, until robots can be built to take on those jobs.
We (the rich and the middle class) will say to ourselves that any child can get into one of the better charter schools, because they are open to anyone. We will say to ourselves that any parents who do not work hard to identify the good schools and get their children into them deserve to have their children under-educated, because they clearly do not care for them. We will not want to do away with public schools completely, though, because it will be important for our world-view to have some “traps” for children to fall into, as proof of their lack of commitment to education. “See?” we will say. “They could have gotten out of their zoned schools, but they chose not to. So they get what they deserve.”
We will not worry about the fact that these schools are preparing children for jobs that no longer exist, and that millions of young people will be spat out into the world, year after year, with limited prospects for employment. We will decide that this, somehow, is somebody else’s problem. And when necessary, we will build walls around our neighborhoods.
We will not call any of this “survival of the fittest,” but secretly, deep down, that’s how we’ll think about it.
We say we believe in equality of opportunity and unlimited private property. But we can't believe in both of those things perfectly and completely. Either one, taken to its extreme, will destroy the other. For them to fit together in any kind of rational world view, compromises must be made--on one side, or the other, or both sides together.
But good luck finding anyone running for public office to say so.